on 11 January 2004
Mclynn's extensive biography is evidence of the detailed research and analysis of both contemporary and modern day literature on Napoleon's life.
I have three main criticisms:
1. His conclusions on some of the great men who surrounded Napoleon - Ney, Tallyrand and Bernadotte to name three - are forthright and damning. There's no doubt in Mclynn's mind that they were either incompetent, treacherous or both, and no evidence is presented to support them. I was left feeling slightly sorry for these characters!
2. The great battles of Austerlitz and Jena have no diagrams to show the dispositions, and those for Borodino and Waterloo are confusing. The text mentions place names that aren't on the maps, and the maps have features and generals that are ommited from the text. As key moments in Napoleon's career, I would have appreciated a better understanding, using graphics, of the strategies and tactics employed.
3. The Sources section does not show evidence of primary research at the battlefields or cities, although maybe the author assumes this need not be mentioned. Consequently, the descriptions are a little lacking in colour, and too dependant on reviewing the reports of others, without the spark that first hand obervation can give.
I certainly learnt things about Napoleon that I wouldn't have learnt elsewhere, but it's left me slightly annoyed that, in order to get a more complete and less opinioned picture, I have had to check out some of McLynn's assertions myself.
on 21 April 2000
Napoleon's career was made by the French revolution. Austria and England fought hard to bring down the new regime in France and there was battle after battle. People with talent were able to prove themselves in the armies of the new regime were aristocratic birth was not the key to one's career.
Napoleon's first success was designing the strategy that regained the port of Toulon from the English. He went on to beat the Italians in a long campaign in Italy. Following a disastrous expedition to Egypt he returned and was able to make himself dictator of France, initially as First Consul and then later as Emperor. As emperor he initially brought peace to France and developed a set of laws known as the Code Napoleon which were important in shaping the development of law in all of Europe.
Napoleon's detractors have focused on his cronyism. He made his various family members kings of such places as Spain, Southern Italy and the Netherlands. Further he had a penchant for war and after an initial period of peace France was soon at war with all of Europe.
Frank McLynn tells the well-told story well. He brings to its telling two new things. The first involves the Russian campaign. In 1812 Napoleon had defeated most of Europe. Russia held out against him. He raised an army of over half a million men and marched to Moscow. At Borodino an inconclusive and bloody battle was fought which left the Russian Army bloodied but intact. With the onset of winter Napoleon did not know what to do. He occupied Moscow but when the Czar refused to negotiate he saw no way of ending the conflict. He then started a long retreat back to Germany. His army was destroyed and all of the countries of Europe rose up against him and he was defeated. McLynn is able to demonstrate that up till now there has been an understanding that it was the weather which defeated Napoleon. He is able to show that the Russian campaign was a disaster from the start. The army that invaded Russia was to large to be supported from the country and by the time it reached Borodino sickness and desertion had led it to lose two thirds of its strength. Most of the retreat from Moscow was in fact in reasonable weather. The reason for the failure of the campaign were bad planning and a failure to think through the logistic problems. The book in fact slightly downgrades Napoleon's military reputation. The second point raised by the book is to confirm that Napoleon was murdered on St Helena by the use of poison. There is some speculation about who did it.
In all a readable book about a man who was an important symbol to romantics in the nineteenth century but whose fame and importance is no in decline.
on 2 February 1999
McLynn really manages to focus on Napoleon the war leader in this book. His description of the early days of Napoleon and his rise to power are very thorough. McLynn never loses sight of the character of Napoleon, and is especially good on the twisted relationship which existed between him and Josephine. Other enjoyable sections also include the March on Moscow and Napoleons death in exile, it sheds light using the latest research on the suspected murder of Napoleon. However, the book falls down slightly in the pocket biographies of those surrounding Napoleon, who are all by and large painted as incompetent and without character. More detail on how and why Napoleon suffered all these fools surrounding him would have been interesting. There are also very few illustrative stories about Napoleon the man as told seen by contemporaries and for the novice it may appear too detailed on politics in places. But stick with it, it becomes very interesting towards the end.
Although there are some dissapointing elements to this biography, it is probably the best and most up-to-date version of Napoleon's life up till now.
To illustrate every aspect of Napoleon's life to the satisfaction of every reader must be well nigh impossible but McLynn's Napoleon will leave the reader coming back for more.
on 14 September 2002
~~~Just to put the record straight about one of the remarks made by a previous reviewer: it is not Freudian psychobabble that the author has written, if there is any pyshobabble in the book at all it is Jungian, but I, personally, noted very little of it. This is easily the best book on Napoleon that has emerged recently. It towers above Robert Asprey's well written dual-set biography as well as Vincent Cronin's very good, although highly prejudiced biography.The author takes a very unique slant~~ on the subject. There is not the inquiry into his military genius and plans, although readers will be amazed how much of that Mr.McLynn has absorbed, nor is there attempt to portray Napoleon as a moral saviour of France. No, the Author's narrative, to my mind, focuses on the far most interesting questions of what does it mean to be human? And how does Napoleon stretch our ideas of what human 'nature' is? Presented before us is a man who not only drags himself from nothing but manages (at the~~ expense of his health) to survive on three hours sleep a night whilst utilising the rest of the time in work. He seems to be, as Emerson nominated him, a mainfestation of the Modern. Time and ambition being key to understanding his character. Who is written of does not bear as much resemblance to the Napoleon I have read of in other biographies, nonetheless I was so impressed by the detail of Mr.McLynn's scholarship that I take his book to be the gold standard. No other writer is so well~~ informed about the continuing debates surrounding Napoleon, no other writer appears to be so well philosophically informed, nor any other writer so at home with the 'psychobabble'. A great book, a great read.~
on 11 December 2008
I frankly couldn't finish the book, although I did read the beginning, his youth, and the end, and skimmed the middle. I was so put off by the psychobabble that pervades nearly every sentence of the biography of this man that I found it impossible to go on. It felt like being in a high school class just introduced to Freud, Jung et al. The author actually talks about Napoleon's short stature as an impetus to his need to succeed...the first sentence of the book I thought was tongue in cheek (to the effect of Napoleon was not a real person but a creation of the French nation's need for blood after the age of reason ---paraphrasing). But no...its all like that. His mother is powerful and controlling, his father is weak and emasculated...he hates his older brother and repressed it, therefore, the rest of Europe will suffer because he holds in what he would like to do to his older brother but cannot. And on and on. Does anyone still write and talk this way?
on 16 November 2002
I have just finished reading this book, I found it a good read. Most of my background has come having to study the French revolution for A level history in the 1970's.
The story flows well and gives a good insight into the person, I do not think it went into too much "Jungian psychobabble". What comes over as a person who dragged himself by his own efforts, allbeit with help from some influential friends / protectors. Obviously he was stuck with his family, what a bunch of ingrates they were! Most of his marshals do not come out of it very well. I felt the author was too dismissive of Wellington, logistics do play a vital role in warfare. The tactics may be wonderful, but without good logistics, the best laid plans come to nought.Napoleon got out of his depth in Russia with poor back up.
Britain's conduct as Napoleon's jailer left me with the feeling of how petty they were.
The book probably falls short of Napoleonic specialists' expectations, but it gives a good insight into the man. Nevertheless, recommended reading as a primer on the subject.
on 4 July 2014
I found McLynn treatment of women problematic, with a heavy focus on slutshaming (count the instances in which he terms women with normal sexual appetites as 'nymphomaniacs', including Napoleon's teenage sister). He's very fond of the word 'fading' when describing women over the age of 30, we're not exactly living in Logan's run.
The rest was ok - like previous reviewers I found some of McLynn's assumptions and leaps to conclusions as far as Napoleon's psychology is concerned, odd and at times far-fetched. I started skipping such passages after a while and found the reading experience improved.
on 25 November 2012
What a contradiction is this book.
On one hand you have a well-paced, quite comprehensive biography that strikes a fair balance between Napoleon's military career, his political machinations and his personal life. On the other hand, you have a book that makes some glaring errors, and repeats long-disproven misconceptions. Chief amongst these is the thoroughly discredited notion that Napoleon was a short man.
Most current estimates place the Emperor at around 5'7; a little on the short side in this day and age (but not ridiculously so), but perfectly average for the time. His famously short stature is based on nothing more than 1) British propaganda cartoons 2) his affectionate (not literal) nickname "Le Petit General" 3) the comparatively greater stature of his Imperial Guard and 4) a misunderstanding of the French system of measurement used at the time. Nonetheless the erroneous "fact" that Napoleon was notably short is offered up shamelessly in McLynn's book. What's worse, the author uses it to examine some half-baked Jungian height complex. McLynn delves carelessly into unconvincing psychoanalysis on more than a few occasions, and increasingly I found myself skipping such sections as they appeared.
This irritation aside, the rest of the book is not bad. Some Napoleonic biographies dwell too much on endless battles and neglect his political abilities, or vice versa. Sometimes authors will obsess over his personal life at the expense of his public achievements. Thankfully his book avoids such mistakes, and devotes a fair amount of time to the various facets of his life, so it feels more complete than several other works on Napoleon which have a narrower focus.
Another positive is McLynn's disinclination to swallow the official or commonly-accepted version of each story on faith, prefering instead to root out the most likely course of events. In this regard he debunks a number of previously held but unlikely stories, many of which were the result of pro- or anti-Napoleon bias. The author presents an even handed view of a divisive figure; being neither a slanderer nor an apologist. He distills disparate tales into a manageable narrative. These good qualities are of course tempered by his own mistakes.
Napoleon A Biography is at turns flawed, interesting, unconvincing, convincing, entertaining, and ultimately fair and balanced. As such my review wavers towards the positive, while recognising the shortcomings of the work. You would be a fool to accept this as the last word on Napoleon, but as an introduction to and an overview of this magnificent subject, it's a reasonable stab. I cannot say I regret reading this book. Indeed, I rather enjoyed it (with reservations).
on 24 May 2012
Great if you want a single, readable narrative of Napoleon's life. McLynn's book only aims to summarise the best research on Napoleon, so aficionados shouldn't expect anything new. But this is a welcome introduction to Napoleon's life.
Any book on Napoleon seems to suffer at least one of two criticisms: either it's said to hero-worship Napoleon, or it is said to bring back the 'black legend'. Both claims are somewhat true here: McLynn is both too generous and too critical of Napoleon.
On the generosity side, McLynn spends quite a lot of time defending Napoleon from his critics. He sometimes echoes Napoleon's own propaganda. For example, Napoleon frequently complained that his failings were not his fault, but rather he was betrayed and let down by his marshals, and by his family. McLynn buys this line too quickly, and the Marshalls and his brother Joeseph in particular get an ungenerous treatment as a result. McLynn is even more disparaging of Napoleon's Russian, German, Prussian and British counterparts.
On the critical side, McLynn paints many of Napoleon's unsuccessfuly decisions as foolish. For example, rather than understanding the reasons behind the invasion of Russia, or his dealings with women, McLynn prefers to put them down to irrational 'complexes' in Napoleon's character. I would like to have seen more done to try to make sense of Napoleon's reasons. Napoleon of 1913 onwards is painted as someone who just couldn't be bothered to win.
In short, balanced - but perhaps not in the right way.
McLynn psychoanalyses Napoleon: he claims that Napoleon suffers from a variety of complexes: a brother complex, an oriental complex. At one point, he even traces Napoleon's neurosis to the (false) claim that Napoleon was short. Personally, I think that psychoanalysis is bunkum. So I found these passages tiresome, and unhelpful. Thankfully, this didn't ruin the book for me: although they form a large part of the early chapters on Napoleon's childhood, they disappear almost entirely for the rest of the book, and can be safely skipped where they do appear.
In general, McLynn writes well. He often uses very formal and old-fashioned words, and occasionally these are used inappropriately. But by-and-large, the vocabulary causes little distraction, and the book is a pleasure to read.
In summary, a good introduction to Napoleon. It stumbles by being both too critical and too generous, and reflects many of the faults of modern Napoleonic scholarship. But it is as good as, or better than, anything other introductory biography out there.
[Husband of account holder]
on 24 September 1999
I chose this book as a summary text about Napoleon, I wanted to know more about the man than basic school history had left me with. There's no doubt that Napoleon provides enough material to fill a book of this size, and it was a satifying read. For a man whose life was devoted to winning territory there is an embarassing lack of maps; long episodes of the book are difficult to interpret when there is no battlemap to help visualise what is going on. A book that served it's purpose for me but left me wanting more.